As the mum of two chronically sleep-shy children – who’d both dropped what passed for a daytime nap before they were a year old – Charlotte is ready to bite the next person to say (or strongly hint): ‘you’ve brought this on yourself’. She begs sleep-training evangelists to stop treating the parents of wakeful children like the Victorian ‘Undeserving Poor’. Unless you’re asked for advice, she says, keep your ‘expert’ opinions to yourself and remember that what’s right for one family might wreak havoc on another.
Our two-year-old has just had a sickness bug. And the other night, as she and I sat watching the rising sunlight seep in through the living room curtains, it struck me that this was no particular disruption to our routine. Yes the vomit has given us four extra baskets of laundry to do, but there’s nothing remotely unusual about doing an all-nighter with Stella. The sort of crisis conditions that many parents experience during a week or two’s illness or a bout of teething is our normal – and it has been for four and a half years.
If it’s not one thing it’s another. We’ve had the odd false dawn – the occasional month or so when things suddenly improve and, punch drunk, we start saying crazy things like: “let’s watch a film tonight,” – but it never lasts. They’ve got a rota. Typically one child does the evening and the other takes the night shift.
Ironically, my student yearbook lists me as the person ‘most likely to be found asleep anytime, anywhere’. I’ve slept through Pulp Fiction four times. I’ve slept standing up – propped against a clammy brick wall in a thumping basement club. I’ve dozed off while talking on the phone, while rowing a boat and as a means of deflecting unwanted amorous advances (not recommended). So my children did not get this from me.
Except of course some people are more than happy to explain to us exactly how my husband and I have created this problem ourselves. “You need a proper bedtime routine,” we’re told. Often. Really? Routine you say? I wish I’d known. If only there were some sort of information superhighway where parents in our position could find such somnological gold dust without your help…
But I know that the odd idle suggestion is usually just offered in a friendly spirit of: ‘hey, this worked for us – maybe you could try it’. And I’m sure it’s great advice. You weren’t to know that our kids are unusually die-hard. (At about nine months Stella wiped the floor with a private ‘baby sleep guru’ who assured me she’d be “no trouble”. “So that’s just a little, tired grizzle… She’s winding down now… That cry’s going to die right down… No! She doesn’t need you to pick her up… It usually takes about two or three minutes… Some babies take just a little longer…” Two and a half hours later, the shaman left our house defeated. At the door, as I thanked her insincerely, she and Stella shot accusing scowls at one another. I spent the rest of the afternoon snuggled up with my poor baby on the sofa – begging her forgiveness and defiantly breastfeeding her to sleep.)
So, no – I don’t really mind if you offer me a few ideas. I can’t even take issue with the experts. I’ve no doubt that they’ve been the saviours of countless families on the brink of crisis. It’s great that there are strategies out there that will help SOME children to sleep better.
No, the people I really object to aren’t the experts; they’re you: the disciples. Devotees of this sleep training system or that baby-taming manual, you’re the ones who have been where I am now and – like an ex-smoker or a self-made millionaire – you’ve pulled yourselves up by your bootstraps. And now you think it’s time I did too.
The first time you tell me about Whatever Worked for You, you do so with such enthusiasm, coupled with real empathy for our plight, that I’ll get quite excited. Maybe this is it! I allow myself to imagine… But this isn’t the end of it. The next time I see you, you’ll be straight to the point: “So, did you read that book I lent you? Has it worked yet?” And that’s when things get difficult.
What to say? Maybe I tried it and it didn’t work. Maybe I took one look at what it proposed and just knew it wouldn’t be right for us. Or perhaps I hated it; maybe the methods on the table went against my deepest mothering instincts. So I steered clear.
My child. My instincts. My decision.
So I’ll mutter something vague about it not being the right time for us to sleep train and change the subject. Unfortunately you’re not letting it go that easily. And you interpret our reticence to join your tribe as proof that we’ve chosen to be martyrs to our children. We now fall into that ever-popular category of victim – the ones who “brought it on themselves”. Sometimes it’s unspoken – just an eye-roll or a testy “you look exhausted, AGAIN.” But it’s often more direct. More than once I’ve been told: “you’ve only got yourselves to blame,” or asked: “What’s your problem? I’ve told you what you need to do.”
There’s a subtext here. I suspect you proselytisers see our refusal to follow your advice as a personal attack on your own parenting. “Who do you think you are, refusing to let your kids cry it out?” you’re thinking, “You’re not doing them any favours. Are you saying that anyone who does is cruel? How dare you?”
But, no, we’re not attacking you. I love my children and you love yours. Let me follow my instincts and you follow yours. In the end you have to do what’s right for your whole family. There are so many reasons why parents may sleep train and everyone will gravitate towards a strategy that suits their child’s temperament and their own style of parenting. So hear me, crusaders: I AM NOT JUDGING YOU.
I’m honestly happy for you that you’re getting some sleep and that you found a way to turn things around. I just don’t think your path will work for us. Our girls will get there – in their own time. Is sleep training wrong for us because our children are so incredibly strong-willed or because we’re so pitifully weak-willed or just because our relationship with our kids doesn’t flourish when we turn it into some titanic power struggle? Who knows? It doesn’t matter. It’s our business.
But this is how life is at the moment: we stagger around, day after day, on three or four hours of broken sleep; we’ve put our social life on permanent pause because it’s not really the deal to leave a babysitter with two pyjama-clad tornados; and we regularly have less than an hour – between getting the last child to sleep and dragging our aching selves up to bed – in which to do everything that a human might want or need to do for themselves. And none of this feels like a choice. We’d snap out of martyrdom in a second if we could find a solution that felt right for us.
So I know you’re saying we’re our own worst enemies; I know you find it irritating when we cancel on you again or when we turn up for work with the haunted, glazed eyes of the sleep-destitute that no amount of fake smiles and brave faces can hide. But surely it’s harder for us to live like this than it is for you to be irked by our failure to act on your advice or offended by our (imaginary) criticisms of you. We’re having a tough time and telling us we’ve brought this on ourselves makes it that little bit harder.
I’m not judging your parenting. So please don’t judge mine.